Considering how small Crawley was during the Second World War, our town certainly endured a large amount of damage, both to property and people.
A booklet called War In East Sussex, which refers to Crawley as “a little town just over the border”, records nine deaths and 69 injuries. As for the bombs which fell within the parish, there were 44 high explosives, three V1 flying bombs – known as Doodlebugs – one of which crashed into Malthouse Road and did not explode, seven oil bombs which caused four fires, and 2,000 incendiaries which caused eight serious fires.
The first – and most serious – attack happened on February 4 1943, when West Green School, the Westminster Bank, the Post Office and Station Road were bombed. Two people died.
Imagine being a child during those dangerous days.
Rex Williams documented his memories in a book called You Must Remember This and, like many boys of the time, he snagged himself a rather impressive souvenir – the remains of the wings of a Doodlebug.
They may look like bits of scrap metal but they give a fascinating glimpse of the workmanship of the flying bombs. The top one shows faded German text while the one beneath still shows the blue paint which was used to camouflage the craft against the sky.
Regarding the bomb which failed to explode in Malthouse Road on July 10 1944, he said: “The Doodlebugs were supposed to dive when the engine cut but this one bellyflopped to the ground. I remember that one fell at night. The motor must have cut out. I suppose it ran out of fuel.”
War In East Sussex states: “The report centre received a message from Malthouse Road that ‘something was falling from the air and it was hissing’. Half an our later, a second report said the ‘something had fallen in the road and it was still hissing’.
“Subsequent investigation revealed that the hissing was caused by the compressed air escaping through wires in the flying bomb’s structure.”
Mr Williams was waiting to enter the scout hut in Goffs Close when another Doodlebug flew right overhead on July 10 1944 on its way to Springfield Road alongside the railway line.
The bomb fell at the junction of West Street and Oak Road, killing seven people and injuring 44. Some 15 houses were destroyed.
Mr Williams said that, after the explosion at Oak Road, he and some other lads ran to the site to volunteer their services but were told that they were not required.
He was lucky enough to witness the efforts of an allied pilot to divert another bomb. He said: “I was standing behind the Embassy (later Bar Med and now Morrison’s) in the field. A whistle blew and a flare went up then the Doodlebug flew over. A Hawker Tempest arrived and put its wing under the Doodlebug and tipped it up.
“Because it was a Tempest it was almost certainly a Polish pilot from West Malling. I dived into a ditch and put my hands over my ears. I took my hands off just when it exploded in Poles Lane, Lowfield Heath. When I took my hands away I saw I was next to an ammunition shed.
“The bombs were even more frightening when you couldn’t see them as they passed over. My brother and I were walking in a field that is near Ewhurst Road. There was thick fog. It was a bit alarming because we couldn’t see anything.”
Another bomb that came down on Ifield, was passing over Mr Williams’ house when the engine cut.
He said: “We were in the garden and watched it come over. The engine cut out over our house. We went into the kitchen and hid under the table. It came down in Ifield Green and blew a man over a haystack.”
While the idea of Crawley being targetted by bombers is terrifying, Mr Williams summed up the versitility of children when he said: “At first we were quite excited but after a while we didn’t even bother to look up.”
One of Mr Williams’ most vivid memories of wartime was the day a Tomahawk single-engine, single-seat, low-wing, all-metal fighter and ground attack aircraft made an unscheduled stop in Crawley.
He said: “Late one morning, when at school in Crawley, news arrived that a Tomahawk P40, as used by John Wayne in The Flying Tigers, had crashed at Ifield. We always went home for dinner and this was about a mile each way. Seeing the crash would make it two miles each way so we had to get moving.
“As we arrived at Ifield we could see the crash had occurred about 50 yards past The Royal Oak pub next to Telmey’s Garage (later Berite Motor Factors).
“The single-seater fighter, flying from west to east, had followed the direction of Rectory Lane, hit a tree and telegraph pole and sliced through the top of each on the post office side of the road.
“Part of the tailplane was in the tree. It had then crossed the road with the fuselage going through the 12 feet wide gap between No 2 Alma Cottages and No 1 Oak Cottages. The pilot neatly left one wing on each of the tiled roofs.
“As the fuselage was at the far end of the gardens in a greenhouse we were not allowed to see more. We heard the pilot sprained his ankle. The tree with no top was felled in 1987 at the time of the hurricane.”
With allied soldiers from all over the world stationed in Crawley, it was only natural that the local girls would find themselves the centre of attention. Parents in Crawley did not always approve.
Mr Williams recalled: “If Johnny, the handsome young Canadian soldier who visited our home to call on my 17-year-old sister, had had the sense to call himself Horace or something my parents might have allowed him back again.
“My other sister had a boyfriend later for a while called Cliff, from Bradford. He told me VR on his RAF uniform stood for ‘very reluctant’ and also suggested a very rude cure for my chilblains.
“I can’t repeat what it was but it had something to do with emergency night-time toilet arrangements, considering our urinal was outdoors. He gave me an altimeter from a crashed Junkers 88 for my collection.”
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